Birding along the I-19 Corridor, south of Tucson; Pima and Santa Cruz Counties, Arizona

Sunday, August 13th
Summer birding in Arizona plays havoc with my sleep patterns! When daylight begins at 5 a.m., the alarm is often set for 2:30 or 3:00 in order to wake up sufficiently to get out the door with my gear and drive to a specific birder meeting place to continue on to a distant location.  

The sun is now rising later, but the drive will be long. After planning my little excursion to see three specific birds, I contacted Hinde Silver to see if she had a free day to join me. She was up for it, so I picked her up at 4:15 a.m. despite the continuing drizzle of rain. This summer’s monsoon has behaved as I always expected it would - but never did. Instead of many rainy days, most of the past summers’ years have been full of dust storms in the Phoenix area so great they make the national news: Wave of Dust One Mile High and Five Miles Wide! They’re called: DRY MONSOONS. This year: WET MONSOON! Lots and lots of rainy days —very unusual here in the desert.

Monsoon’s heavy rains
Too much for roadway storm drains
Cars not in their lanes

Heading to the I-19 corridor south of Tucson, I hoped we could drive out of the dark clouds and rain. It didn’t clear until we reached Tucson but then, as the sun rose, we could see white clouds and glimpses of clear sky ahead.

I tend to look for birds that can be found seasonally and that I particularly like. Without success, I had already searched known locations in the Phoenix West Valley for the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and the Tempe Town Lake for the Brown Pelican that had taken up residence there the past couple years. With both being reported at the Amado Water Treatment Ponds, that was our first stop at 6:50 a.m.

The BROWN PELICAN was easy to see perched out on one of the mechanisms in the water.

BROWN PELICAN
It also lifted and flew around a couple times prior to returning to its “spot”.




Since the ducks I wanted to see were not on the water, I set up the spotting scope to search for the BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING DUCKs that had been reported there - with young. (Less chance of them leaving the area before I arrived!)

And, there they were-all the way across the pond! Two adults and a couple young at water’s edge on a bit of mud and stones in front of the reeds.

BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING DUCKS (above and below)

Then, it was on to Montosa Canyon farther north off of I-19 where we picked up Mt. Hopkins Road, following it past the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory base camp buildings to the dirt road leading into another rich birding area.

Normally, the Mexican Five-striped Sparrow is usually found in one spot way south toward the border in California Gulch or other canyons there. This year they seemed to be found at the confluence of the gulch with Warsaw Canyon — all of which requires very high clearance four-wheel drive vehicles.

The first time I saw this bird was in 2014 on a Melody Kehl guided trip into California Gulch - a bone jarring ride over rocks called a road. Being Melody’s last trip into the Gulch that year, she knew the birds would be harder to see but told us she had never “dipped” on them. This particular late afternoon trip stretched into evening as we could hear the birds skulking around thick shrubs. Finally, a few other species began to perch up and sing and then, the FIVE-STRIPED SPARROW did likewise. It was a quick look before the bird dove down into the shrubs again, but enough to call it a LIFE BIRD, despite it being an unsatisfactory view (for me).

Today, I hoped to see my second such Mexican bird that was being reported in various locations farther north (like Montosa Canyon and Box Canyon) where ordinary birders could drive. Possibly, our very wet monsoon (with water and more shrubs) has enabled them to come north.

Other birders were present when we arrived and told us where they had seen the bird and where they were presently looking. We didn’t see IT, but did see lots of other good birds. After checking out - without success - the specific locations these other birders had first seen it, Hinde and I just wandered up the main dirt road listening…listening. 

Rarely do I use feedback these days, but to make sure I knew the song I was listening for, I played it briefly. Then waited…waited....nothing. As we turned to walk back toward the car, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

The FIVE-STRIPED SPARROW had flown in and perched on a bare limb of a dead shrub behind us where it sat quietly looking right back at us!

It provided us ample viewing over the next several minutes. I took photos; we watched it preen; we watched it turn this way and that. NOW, with this, just my second time seeing this stealthy Mexican bird, I was overjoyed with the looks it gave. Five photos of the FIVE-STRIPED SPARROW below:


Preening its toe



It had been three years since I had re-visited Montosa Canyon after a “lost and found” incident that just a few of my birding friends know about. The incident made us cancel our first-scheduled trip with Melody Kehl for this bird so we had caught her final trip into California Gulch that year. Today, with such great looks at the FIVE-STRIPED SPARROW, I felt a poetic resonance. It also felt good to bird this area again.

After about an hour watching hummingbirds and others at the Santa Rita Lodge feeding station, Hinde and I headed back home as dark clouds began to gather down south. Nice and toasty under the desert sun when we returned home.

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View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S38630875



East-coast Shorebirds in Phoenix West Valley, Maricopa County, Arizona

Glendale Recharge Ponds, Glendale, AZ
August 4 & 10, 2017




With the desert heat cranking up a bit again, I needed some good birds to flavor my day. What better place to visit than a spot where two east-coast favorites somehow showed up in the past week — Glendale Recharge Ponds.

Marsha joined me for my first drive across Phoenix from the East Valley where we arrived at the ponds and began birding by 6 a.m. Although the early morning felt comfortable, temperatures have a way of riding up quickly in the desert. 

The first eastern shorebird to arrive at the ponds was the TRI-COLORED HERON, the same species that had flown into the Gilbert Water Ranch ponds last year. Although it wasn’t in its last-reported location, another birder, Jeff Ritz, had watched it fly from Pond #1 where we started looking for it, so he quickly pedaled his bike back to let us know it was on Pond #3. 

Not wanting to spook the TRI-COLORED HERON, we took photos from a distant corner. The long-slender-necked heron was perched on a smooth rounded light rock where it was busy preening. For me, clear photos were tough to come by so I’m posting Marsha’s that were somewhat better. (We don’t carry big cameras.)

The bird was an adult in mating plumage evidenced by its white head plume and the pale golden plumes on its rump. For me, the question becomes: How did it come to this pond? Was it blown off course? Did it just know it needed more food to complete its migration?  Generally, the TRI-COLORED HERON is found along the Atlantic seaboard, but does wander northward and inland and will forage on inland lakes and freshwater marshes just about anywhere. So, we were lucky today! Will it stay?

Tri-colored Heron [Photo by Marsha Wiles]

Adult Tri-colored Heron with white head plume and golden rump feathers  [Photo by Marsha Wiles]
After feasting at the Glendale Ponds for several days, the TRI-COLORED HERON would fly off to other unknown places but would occasionally return.

On my second visit to the ponds about a week later (8/10), it wasn’t there but had shown up the previous day when many birders descended to see the REDDISH EGRET that had also come in to Glendale’s Pond #4. Since its habitat is almost always in coastal areas (tidal flats, lagoons) and rarely inland or in fresh water, this seemed like a more important find.

Eagerly, I headed out pre-comuter traffic and arrived at the ponds while it was still mostly dark (5-ish). I set up my spotting scope and scanned Pond #4 with binoculars testing my ability to discern silhouettes. At least five GREEN HERONs were hugging the shore closest to me but not yet moving. GREAT BLUE HERONs were scattered throughout the pond (unless they were white egrets looking black in the still-darkness).

I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that the sought-after bird (REDDISH EGRET) was located, more or less, in the SE corner of Pond 4.  I also thought the TRI-COLORED may have been in the NW corner, but Jeff Ritz who was sitting along the eastern edge of the pond (not visible until dawn arrived), told me it was a GREAT BLUE, one that had flown off.

Dawn seemed to signal the GREAT BLUEs and the GREEN HERONs to lift off to fly to their preferred breakfast buffets but the REDDISH EGRET stayed among the GREAT and SNOWY EGRETs in the SE corner.

As you can see in the photos below, the REDDISH EGRET is bigger than the SNOWYs, but smaller than the GREAT EGRET.  Many birders were calling it a juvenile bird, but the distinctly bicolored bill (pink with black tip) is an ID marker for adults in breeding plumage. What was missing was its remaining shaggy neck feathers that I associate with having seen this bird on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. No expert, I don’t need to call its age but would guess it’s intermediate between first-year and adulthood. Below (and lead-in photo) are all of the REDDISH EGRET.

REDDISH EGRET

REDDISH EGRET with SNOWY EGRETs
REDDISH EGRET with SNOWY EGRETs

REDDISH EGRET beside a GREAT EGRET

The ponds were full of birds, including a CASPIAN TERN in our desert waters.



CASPIAN TERN background; BLACK-NECKED STILTs foreground

NEO-TROPIC CORMORANTS
WHITE-FACED IBIS
Same WHITE-FACED IBIS lifting their heads out of the water
Staying out there at the six open ponds with no shade is a challenge, but I lasted three hours while I scoped the smaller waders and sandpipers. While I got a good scope view of the PECTORAL SANDPIPER, it was too distant for photos. It appeared to be an adult bird (approx. 9"), with greenish legs and close streaking on the nape, throat and breast reaching down to the belly where the stripes stop precisely and cleanly.

As if my day had not already been full of a nice variety of birds, as I placed my gear into the trunk of my car, a male LAZULI BUNTING flew past with sunshine lighting up its special color of new blue feathers!  What a day!

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